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Concussion early in life causes cognitive decline decades later

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Concussion in early adulthood has been tied to increased cognitive decline in later life, scientists have shown.

By comparing thousands of pairs of identical twins, the researchers from Duke University demonstrated that traumatic brain injuries early in life are associated with lower test scores in thinking and memory skills and more rapid cognitive deterioration, decades after the injury took place.

The study was published in the American Academy of Neurology’s medical journal, Neurology, on September 6.

Traumatic brain injuries
Traumatic brain injuries in early adulthood can affect thinking skills and cognitive decline in older age, decades after the injury has taken place.
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“Our study is unique in that it studied twin pairs which allowed us to account for many early life experiences such as home environment, nutrition, and quality of education that were shared by the twins within the pair,” study author Marianne Chanti-Ketterl told Newsweek. “It also allowed us to account for genes shared within the twin pair.

“We found that among identical twin pairs in which one twin had a traumatic brain injury and the other did not have a traumatic brain injury, that the twin with the traumatic brain injury scored lower on the cognitive measure. In addition, we found that the men who incurred a traumatic brain injury after age 25 showed greater cognitive decline in later life than their twin who did not have a traumatic brain injury.”

The study involved 8,662 World War II veterans, 25 percent of whom had experienced a concussion at some point in their life. The participants were asked to take a cognition test at the start of the study when they had an average age of 67, and then again up to three more times over the next 12 years.

Twins who had had a brain injury that resulted in loss of consciousness, more than one brain injury or who had received a brain injury after the age of 24 were more likely to have faster cognitive decline than their twins.

While other lifestyle and health factors, such as high blood pressure, alcohol use, smoking and education, can also contribute to cognitive decline, the researchers took these factors into account and still saw a significant association.

“Because our analyses accounted for many other factors that can negatively impact cognitive decline, such as genes and early life exposures, we can more confidently point to the traumatic brain injury as the cause of the lower cognitive score and the faster rate of cognitive decline,” Chanti-Ketterl said.

So what should you do to protect your cognitive health if you have already experienced one or more traumatic brain injuries?

“Our message to all who incur a traumatic brain injury at any time throughout their life is to be evaluated by a clinician with expertise in assessing and treating traumatic brain injuries,” Chanti-Ketterl said. “Follow the clinician’s instructions on treatment post traumatic brain injury. Follow the current tips for maintaining brain health such as good nutrition, stay physically active, and maintain good sleep habits.

“Since traumatic brain injuries will never be totally avoidable, it will be important to study ways to minimize the long term negative effects of traumatic brain injuries such as cognitive decline and dementia.”

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